Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Livingston Taylor and many more at Lowell concert series

Margaret Smith

Summer nights are a time to feel the noise in Lowell, even if the economy has brought some stormy weather.

Organizers of the Lowell Summer Music Series – which marks its second decade this year – are banking on folk legends Tom Rush and Joan Baez – marking her own milestone, in a 50th anniversary tour -- and Livingston Taylor, along with crossover favorites such as Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos to rock the night away in the city’s historic downtown.

Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, is excited about the series’ ability to attract names such as Baez, as well as newer acts quickly growing their own following across generations.

Baez will see her legacy shine on the stage in the form of gutsy vocalists from Ani Di Franco to Aimee Mann. As one of the first Hispanic performers to distinguish herself with a mainstream following, she is also followed by Los Lonely Boys, Los Lobos, groundbreakers in their own right with chart smashing, crossover hits.

Rocking the ages

Speaking of generations, the lineup also includes artists with a proud musical heritage.

Jakob Dylan, son of another folk legend, Bob Dylan, graces the stage, as does Derek Truck Seller, a lead guitarist from the Allman Brothers Band, and Blues Traveler.

With many consumers cutting back on entertainment spending, it may not be an opportune time for a series filled with highly ought-after performers.

Then again, success in the arts has always required taking risks.

As a former factory city, Lowell is a case in point, with a history of struggling and by all accounts succeeding in forging a new identity.

Establishing an arts base has long been a part of that effort, and this was where the idea for an outdoor concert and theater series began in the late 1980s.

“The Master Plan for the National Park Service in Lowell called for building a performance arts center,” said Aucella.

Initially, it was seen as a place for theatrical performances, and later for local music acts. “What people enjoy has to do with a critical mass. It doesn’t work when you put a single kind of music on stage,” Aucella said.

Two decades of music

Over the years, the series began to attract bigger acts.

But, this also meant going from a donations-only event to a paid admission event in order to sustain the series.

“We had to figure out how to enclose it, but make it feel good,” Aucella said. “The streets are closed off. The city has given us permission. We did figure out a nice, accessible way to have a place that transforms into a concert venue in the evening.”

It remains a venue where concertgoers feel free to flop down on blankets and in lawn chairs to take in a show under the stars.

“The economics have changed. We used to do $5 concerts. But even if you brought back the same acts, you couldn’t afford that 20 years later,” Aucella said.

But, he is proud that even with rocky economic times, more than half the concerts in this year’s series cost less than $20.

The budget for the series – a cooperative effort of the park service in conjunction with several agencies, businesses and cultural groups -- came in at about $1 million last year; this year it is about $900,000, owing in part to a decrease in the number of shows offered.

The economy has also taken a toll in a decline in sponsorships.

“We expect it to be down by about 25 percent,” said Aucella, who said new sponsors have provided backing and encouragement. “A number of local companies have really stepped up…and kids 12 and under still go for free.”

In the past 20 years, folk and other live music festivals have sprung up across the area, posing competition for attendance.

Aucella thinks there is room to grow. “The series has grown with the quality of the act. To have a legend like Joan Baez come – we are pretty pleased with the quality and variety.”

And, “If you give a quality product, people will find you.”